VW’s Tim Ellis on the Deutsch/LA Selection

Volkswagen of America vp of marketing Tim Ellis reflects on the selection of Deutsch/LA as the brand’s new lead creative agency. Ellis, in an interview today with Adweek senior reporter Andrew McMains, also discussed the “incredible challenges” that Deutsch faces, why more clients are producing work out of pitches and the lack of consistency in campaigns from previous agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky.

Adweek: What set Deutsch apart from the other contenders?

Tim Ellis: They had a tremendous understanding of the automotive industry and the unique set of circumstances within the Volkswagen brand that will pose both great challenges and opportunities for us in the coming years. It’s an incredible complex business challenge.

How so?

There are the everyday challenges of managing a car account, which in itself is extremely difficult. You have the dynamics around working with our dealers, understanding the retail business as well as the brand-building side. You’ve got the rapidly evolving decision and purchasing process from a media perspective and understanding how digital is key to capturing in-market shoppers as well as impacting opinion in critical stages of [purchase] consideration. So, the challenge that we posed to all of these agencies was truly incredible. The economy has just collapsed, the industry has gone upside down and all the [changing] dynamics around financing have taken place, affecting our customers, our dealers. Then you look at Volkswagen. We have incredible challenges from both a brand and business perspective. In order to double our sales in what is increasingly a fierce competitive market, we have to evolve. While we have an incredibly strong, vibrant brand, we have to evolve the brand toward a broader base of potential customers without selling our soul. So, that’s not an easy task. 

How close was it between Goodby and Deutsch — was it a difficult decision?

It’s always a difficult decision because each and every one of the agencies had their strengths. Listen, if I think back on this process, it was a difficult decision just getting down from the long list. All of these agencies really wanted our business. They were all highly talented. I think we had the best of the best vying for this prize. Therefore, yes, it was a difficult decision. However, I will say that Deutsch just knocked it out of the park. They did that from the first day that we met them and they continued to prove that every single meeting that we had. . . . Ultimately, we judged them on how we felt about them throughout the process as well as their final presentation. We’re not hiring a campaign; we’re hiring an agency. Also, the Volkswagen challenge is more than just an advertising problem. It’s a business challenge. So, we had to ensure that the agency that we chose had ideas that we can leverage in all aspects of our business. 

How important were the work sessions in the selection process?

They were very important. Those work sessions were perhaps 30 percent of the entire evaluation. It allowed us to understand how they think, get a handle on the quality of their people, get a gut feel for what it would be like to work with them and gave us an understanding of how our cultures would mix. Also, we were able to play ideas off each other. 

What’s the likelihood that you’ll produce something out of Deutsch’s pitch?

I think it’s high. I know that’s rare.

Well, I’m finding these days that it is becoming more common. Why is that?

Agencies are working harder and clients are working harder. . . . Considering the unique set of circumstances we all find ourselves in right now, we as clients as well as the agencies are much more buttoned-up. We’re working much harder at delivering. So, I think that we’re probably better because we manage ourselves appropriately to brief [agencies] properly. Also . . . I continue to hear — not just from the agencies, but from lots of people — that I have one of the sharpest marketing teams in the industry. I say that not to brag. I say that because we’re only 19 people, but we have to do everything right.

Crispin through the years tried a lot of different things in its work. Which approach was most effective?

I answer that from two perspectives. One is, “What was the most effective for any given campaign?” And then, “What was the most effective work over a given period of time?” I say that because over the last two years Crispin has been very consistent together with us on the campaign of using the talking Beetle and the platform of  “It’s what the people want.” We saw how that campaign did grow in its impact and effectiveness over the last couple of years. In particular, some of the work they did with the “Meet the Volkswagen” [effort] had a high level of impact. . . . Some of the campaigns that they rolled out, like the “Safe happens” campaign, were incredibly powerful. I wasn’t here at that time but as a bystander looking in and after coming in and looking at some of the metrics, I understand that that campaign was very powerful. However, it was not within a consistent over-arching campaign.

So, therefore. you have to look at what’s impactful for any specific activity. Then you have to look over the long term and what’s impactful for a good, strong consistent campaign.

So, was that one problem — a lack of consistency?

You can’t blame that on the agency. You have to be strong and consistent as a client. So, I think that as a team — as an agency-client team — that this brand was not as consistent as it needed to be over the past five years. It has been consistent over the last 18 months. There has been some great work, but I don’t think it has been as consistent as say, for example, some of work for the “Drivers wanted” campaign, which was consistent over several years.

Getting back to your selection criteria, how big a consideration was cost?

It wasn’t a consideration for picking the agency, but it’s always a consideration on making final agreements on staffing and scope of work. Obviously, value is incredibly important to all of us, particularly in the automotive industry. But it certainly wasn’t a key criteria for choice.

Was there anything unusual about how Deutsch executives presented their work?

They were extremely fluid. It’s almost as if the creative guys were strategic, the strategic guys were creative and the media guys understood the digital idea as well as the big picture strategic idea. They were extremely focused and fluid in the way that they presented. They were as sharp as any team I’ve ever had the pleasure to see and to work with. They just had this incredible amount of passion and energy. So, you got this sense that they were in complete control of their thoughts and ideas and of the potential in expressing those ideas. They seemed like really flexible, great people — the kind of people that you actually enjoy working with — which again, from a cultural standpoint, is very important to us.

In the end, did DDB’s experience as VW’s international agency hurt them more than help them in the sense that America’s challenges may be different and you may want to go in a different direction and have a different agency in the States?

I have no evidence of that. All of the people that they put on the pitch were their top American performers. I never got a sense that the ideas or the expression of those ideas were coming from Europe or outside a U.S. perspective. Having that understanding of our brand and our business on a global level is clearly an opportunity and a strength. So, I can’t see how that would have been or that was a weakness.

When do you expect Deutsch’s first work?

Umm, Monday (laughs).

Short honeymoon, huh?

You know what? We’re so excited to have them on board. We’ve invited them to get on a plane with us and take a tour of America and see all of our dealers. Stefan (Jacoby), our CEO here, likes to stay close to our retail partners — as we all do-and he thinks it’s so important for all of our dealers to meet our new agency as soon as possible. . . . You asked me a little bit earlier, how did they execute the presentation and what were some of the core reasons why we chose them? They started talking about dealers in the first two minutes of the presentation. They signaled immediately that they understood just how critical that dynamic is in our business. And it wasn’t done for show. It was clear to us that they really understood just how important that side of our business is to get right. There is no partnership in any business that I know that is more critical than the manufacturer and dealership partnership. Deutsch understood that.